I spent two days this week trying to see the largest fish on the planet, which was a surprisingly difficult task when you think about the fact that it is the largest fish on the planet. The whale shark spends each spring munching on the spawn of various fish, particularly the cubera snapper. The cubera snapper spawn just off the Belize barrier reef each month just after the full moon. Find the snapper and find the shark.
When I arrived in Placencia on Tuesday, I was excited to hear the divers talk about how many sharks they had seen that day. One group saw three, another saw four, one lucky group saw seven sharks - including three at the same time. So, it was a HUGE disappointment when we went on our first dive and didn't see shit.
Moreover, the dive is not an easy dive. Essentially, the group dives in open water with a depth of up to 2000 feet. There is no reef, no wall, no floor, nothing to give you a fixed reference point. The only ways to gauge your depth is to compare your position to the other divers, the fish and the shark, or to constantly check your depth gauge. The experience can be quite disorienting at first. To make matters worse, I had trouble getting the right weight and had too much weight on almost every dive. On one of the dives, I was sinking much too fast and couldn't find the attachment to put air into my BCD. I started to panic for a split second that I would sink all the way to the bottom. Less than 10 seconds later, I had air in my BCD and I was fine, but it was a little freaky for a moment.
We had much better luck on our third dive as we quickly found the school of cubera snapper. This alone was really fascinating. I had never seen such a huge school of fish, which numbered in the several hundreds if not quite a thousand fish. They were swimming in circles, up and down and all around. Each adult fish at least ten pounds, some closer to twenty or more. They regularly would flash their belly at another fish, which our guide said was a mating gesture.
All of a sudden, our guide starts banging on his tank and pointing into the depths. At first, I see nothing. Then, a few blue fluorescent dots shine in the murky deep blue water. As I focus on these dots, I can't recognize what I am seeing. My gaze widens, like a camera zooming out dramatically, until I realize that this giant shark is grazing beneath me.
The whale shark is huge. The first one we saw was at least 30 feet long. The second one bigger - closer to 40 feet. The head on these animals is huge, probably close to 10 feet at its widest point. They move very slowly - surprisingly slow. At one point, I out-swam it as I raced to get a better view. The fish mostly ignore the shark, barely making an effort to get out of the way. The SCUBA divers (and there were dozens of us in the water) all clamor for a closer look. The shark decides he has had enough of all these divers and slowly dives deeper, out of our range.
Although we did not have the luck of the divers the day before, we did see two whale sharks over two days. It was a great trip.